Astronaut Hibernation No Longer A Science Fiction Trope

November 19, 2019

by Andreea Sterea

The European Space Agency stated that putting astronauts in a state of suspended animation could help humankind reach other planets easier. Seems that the idea of astronaut hibernation is “actually not so crazy.”

Astronaut Hibernation: The ESA Says is Doable

From A Space Odyssey to Alien or from the Star Trek series to Passengers, space opera flicks featured either hyperdrive or suspended animation or both on futuristic space ships. Now, astronaut hibernation seems to become less the favorite trope of science fiction and more a viable piece of reality. In a recent statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) informed that suspended animation on space ships could be the key-feature of humankind reaching not only Mars, but other planets as well.

The slow-down of humans’ metabolic rate similar to hibernating animals (or to blockbuster space movies) is not possible yet, but it is not completely out of the realm of possibility. After all, we already use similar methods in hospitals to save trauma patients.

While human hibernation still needs further research, the space agency examined the concept of hibernating astronauts and how such practice would and should affect the spaceship’s design and size regarding habitation modules. The ESA experts also studied how torpor would impact the crew and the results are quite impressive.

So How Would the Future Space Missions Look Like with Hibernation Pods?

According to the ESA team of designers – who factored in the physical and psychological consequences of astronaut hibernation – the space missions meant to take us to Mars or other planets would look more like the SCI-FI movies and books we enjoy today. Here are some highlights!

  • The proper agencies should discover a drug – and soon – that would allow for safe astronaut hibernation inside dark, cool sleeping pods for a projected period of 180 days ( the average time it takes to reach Mars at its closest);
  • If we replaced the crew quarters and consumables with hibernation pods, the spaceship would lose a third of its mass, become lighter and more efficient. We might add sleep in space may become more comfortable than it currently is.
  • During such a mission, astronauts would gain extra body fat (like bears, not Jennifer Lawrence) and would need an average of three weeks to recover after their long slumber (unless they’re Ellen Ripley, of course).
  • Sleeping in pods for a Mars mission, for instance, would also protect the astronauts from deep space radiation, one of the biggest challenges space exploration agencies need to tackle in the immediate future.
  • And, in case you wondered, the spaceship would have to travel autonomously since the entire crew is hibernating. We are not that far in the future to have an android on board to tend to the ship’s needs, but in case it happens, we want Data, not David, just to be clear.

Could We Actually Achieve Astronaut Hibernation?

Not yet, but we are getting there! According to Jennifer Ngo-Anh – SciSpacE Team Leader – we do have some precedent we can explore further.

“The basic idea of putting astronauts into long-duration hibernation is actually not so crazy: a broadly comparable method has been tested and applied as therapy in critical care trauma patients and those due to undergo major surgeries for more than two decades. Most major medical centers have protocols for inducing hypothermia in patients to reduce their metabolism to basically gain time, keeping patients in a better shape than they otherwise would be. We aim to build on this in future, by researching the brain pathways that are activated or blocked during initiation of hibernation, starting with animals and proceeding to people.”

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